Some people will tell you writer’s block doesn’t exist, and I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t, but over the course of the last couple months, for me, well . . . if it wasn’t writer’s block, what the hell was it?
I have never been formally diagnosed with depression, though on occasion I have been treated with prescription drugs for anxiety and panic attacks. Around the time of the release of Baldur’s Gate, I went into a period of wild mood swings, debilitating panic attacks that had me up all night one night, crashing the next, and repeating that cycle day after day. I still don’t know the cause, or if there even was one. Was it that I had just released a book I knew wasn’t good, had found out too late didn’t even mirror the actual story of the game upon which it was based? I had a trip to Disneyland with my wife and daughter planned and I started to descend into a terror over flying—a full-on phobic meltdown. I made the decision, which seemed like a good idea at the time, to stop drinking any caffeinated beverages of any kind, cold turkey. And at least one doctor told me it was because I was around the age of 35 and everybody loses it at 35(ish). Really? Maybe it was all of those things.
But that was a lot of years ago, and though I’ve had the occasional bout of anxiety, depression, and much smaller less debilitating panic attacks, I’ve gotten a million times better—almost all better. I even beat the flying thing and now fly prescription drug-free. And for the record, live recreational drug-free all the time.
But this has been a tough couple years. Exciting, yes. Full of interesting new challenges, for sure. But also stressful. Money remains a constant source of stress, along with some other things—nothing weird or terrible or tragic. Nothing they’d produce a Lifetime movie about—just mundane stresses of modern life in the Great Depression II.
I poured my heart out on a lot of this around New Year’s time. I was feeling the beginnings of this round of depression then and it’s carried through for the last couple months, finally spiking a few weeks ago to the point that I actually finally went to the doctor, got on a small dose anti-depressant, and made serious changes to my lifestyle: diet, exercise, scheduling, workload, etc.
The good news: The worst is in the rearview mirror, and over the weekend, I even started writing again.
I posted an excerpt from my work in progress, the Fathomless Abyss novella Devils of the Endless Deep as a way to try to energize my writing of it, which had begun to languish. My self-imposed deadline had passed. A day went by with no writing at all—which is not at all unusual for me. Then another day. Still not out of the normal. Then a week. Hmm. Then another week. Then another. And I knew I was in trouble.
I started looking at my laptop and my outline as though they were the enemy: a terrifying beast from Hell sent to destroy me. Something was wrong.
Part of it was that I had run into a wall in the writing. The villain’s motivation was not working. That wasn’t depression, that was just me not writing well. This character’s story arc is the spine of the whole story. If it doesn’t work—and in that version of the outline, empirically, it did not—the whole story won’t work.
Okay. That happens. And normally, I sit down and think. I try stuff. I scribble notes on the outline. I rearrange scenes. I cut this and add that. I work. I fix it.
This time? Nothing.
I am not the first or only writer who has had, let’s say, an on-again-off-again relationship with depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Scott Lynch, the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, was extremely candid about his own struggles on his blog, in which he wrote:
“I have been dealing for some time with bouts of depression, which have been bad, and ongoing panic attacks, which have been orders of magnitude worse—positively crippling.
“These attacks worsened sharply during the Season of the Long Flu last fall and reached the point where they interfered with nearly everything I tried to do, making it impossible to write, communicate, and sometimes even think straight. It has been a long, sore trial for everyone around me and it ain’t over yet. I do not have a firm grip on precisely what causes the damn things, though they are related to my work, my reading, my writing, and my intellectual life. They are very much an ongoing problem.”
Scott, I feel your pain.
Anne R. Allen addressed the problem of depression and writer’s block on her own blog, in which she identified one cause of writer’s block as “boredom”—you’ve simply lost interest in your story, characters, etc.:
“But boredom can also be a sign of something else: depression. Because of the prevalence of depression in writers, I think it’s important to pay attention to episodes of writer’s block/boredom that can’t be fixed by cutting a few scenes, upping the plot stakes, or changing point of view . . .”
“So it’s quite possible that ‘writer’s block’ is the brain’s way of protecting itself from a depressive episode.”
I can’t even tell you (especially since those conversations were had in confidence), how many authors have described themselves to me using terms like “bi-polar” or “manic-depressive” or even “batshit insane.” It’s a weird job, writing. It forces you—if you want to do it well and inspire people—to confront some of your own deepest emotions, emotional and psychological scars. You have to imagine great tragedies, and if you aren’t conveying the emotional weight of those tragedies, your story will lack the proper anima. You have to get in there, in the dark sometimes, and mix it up with the demons, the skeletons in your closet, your fears and insecurities. That can dredge up some scary stuff.
And if you’re sitting there staring at an empty page like I’ve been, don’t dismiss it, and you sure as hell better not let anyone dismiss it for you. Marg McAlister of Writing4Success Club wrote: “What you need to keep in mind is that sometimes [writer’s block] can spiral downwards into fully-fledged depression. In that case, no amount of telling yourself to ‘buck up and write’ is going to work. It’s best to face the problem now and pick up your writing again later on when you have regained your enthusiasm.
“Whether you need a short break from writing or a visit to the doctor to investigate possible depression, it’s necessary to take action. That will be the beginning of some kind of cure.”
That’s what I did, and it’s working!
And how about we end on a hopeful note. For me, a sharp descent into depression made me stop writing, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Tad Richards of The Examiner asked: “Does depression somehow help us?
“It could be. Look at all the great writers and thinkers, from Socrates and Plato to Darwin to Robert Lowell and William Styron and David Foster Wallace, who have suffered from depression. We’ve always assumed that they succeeded in spite of their depression . . . could it be that their success was, instead, partly because of it?”
He goes on to cite the work of psychiatrist Andy Thompson and evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews, who maintain that depression’s debilitating effects on other parts of your life may help you focus on work.
If that’s true for you, you’re lucky.
But either way, it’s something you can get help for, and that can and will get better. I have a tendency to be closed off and overly stoic. That means any time I’m sick, either physically or psychologically, I often wait way too long to get help and even then, I’m not always forthcoming with the doctor, for fear that I will appear to be a whiner, a weakling.
I’m working really hard to stop thinking like that. It does me no good.